The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled last Tuesday that circuit courts may not exclude the media and public from hearings.
These hearings determine whether the state has enough evidence to justify charging defendants with sexual assault. It is a win for the media, which had challenged a local circuit judge’s refusal to release information about a local man charged with kidnapping and sexual assault of a girl in 2012.
It was found that circuit Judge Vincent Case Jr. had violated the First Amendment when he closed the court proceedings and sealed records from the court before moving the defendant, Robert J. Parks to district court.
Multiple news outlets including the Wyoming Press Association, The Associated Press, Casper Star-Tribune, and several area papers disputed closing the case.
Editor of the Wyoming Star-Tribune, Jason Adrians said he was ecstatic regarding the decision. He continued that it was the right ruling and a victory for transparency in the state of Wyoming.
Wyoming Press Association executive director, Jim Angell said the ruling makes it much easier for journalists to do their job. Angell said that journalists are the guardians of the public’s knowledge of what’s happening around them.
Area chief of bureau for The Associated Press, Jim Clarke said he is pleased the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled in favor of news media access. He said it is a right that The Associated Press has been fighting for aggressively in courtrooms and halls of power around the country.
Wyoming attorney general, Peter Michael said he had not yet reviewed the court’s opinion and had no immediate comment on it.
Bruce Moats, a lawyer representing the media organizations stated there are several courts in Wyoming had replicated what the judge had done in the Parks’ case. This ruling makes sure a judge cannot seal a case so easily.
The ruling exhibits a constitutional right to access court records in Wyoming. This finding takes Wyoming state law even further than United States Supreme Court rulings on access by a court.
Moats said the Wyoming court system has not been equal in its treatment of cases. The decision gives courts guidance and helps keep the cases open as long as possible.
The Wyoming Supreme Court found that the circuit judges can follow state law forbidding state employees, other than the presiding magistrate, from identifying people accused of sexual assault.
Attorneys of the state can now file papers in circuit court with the defendant’s name represented by initials or completely redacted.
If a judge in the circuit court believes they have a very good reason to withhold public information, they must hold a hearing to give members of the public a chance to argue against the decision.
Judges must now make specific findings on the record about why a hearing was closed to allow higher courts to review the decision.
Parks entered so-called Alford pleas to the charges in May 2013, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced last August to concurrent sentences of 44 to 50 years for first-degree sexual abuse of a minor and 60 years to life in prison for aggravated kidnapping.